Lovefest: A look back at the 2011 AMA conference and festival

Celebrating its 12th year in 2011, the Americana Music Association delivered somewhere around 100 artists in five venues, a swath of panel discussions and a trade show, a countless assortment of parties and side events, a concert in the park, and lord knows what else. But it's not even the schedule which matters so much at this conference and festival - nor which of the five venues you wind up bouncing between at night (there's incredible stuff happening everywhere). The AMA is about good people who love good music. And, by "love good music," I mean there's a whole lot of all of that going on - love, goodness, and music. 

I've been accused before of politicizing everything. Just know I'm aware of that before you read any further. 

Because, honestly, what was on my mind the most as I made my way through the Americana Music Association Conference and Festival (to which I'll refer from here on out as "the AMAs") was Occupy Wall Street. What does that have to do with love, goodness, and music? Plenty. 

When I first heard of the Occupy movement, I thought what probably a lot of other people thought (and maybe many still think): a random collection of dirty hippies gathering to make a stink about things they don't entirely understand, without a clear message, yadda yadda. A week later, they were still at it. Two weeks later, still going, now with more people. My ears perked up. Okay, I figured, maybe this is something. I googled it, read the list of demands, decided I was on board. 

Now that Occupy has been rolling for a month straight - meaning people have been demonstrating around the clock for a month, forsaking everything else to make this movement work - I haven't occupied anything. Or, I guess, in a way, I've been occupying this blog space for some time now. This weekend at the AMAs, I simply couldn't tear my mind away from the whole shebang. It all seemed apropos. 

It's the nature of the AMAs to do a little navel gazing. Plenty of the panels look at questions which can boil back to "What is Americana?" The who are we and what are we here for stuff can feel like a broken record, and yet it persists. This is a self-conscious movement in music, after all, and it's important for us all to be on the same page. Especially when we're staring down something as giant and daunting as AAA radio which, for all intents and purposes, isn't really the opponent here (I don't think any kind of music has any kind of opponent, as long as it's made out of genuine passion). AAA radio is, however, the establishment.

The AMA started as a group of people who believed in music which didn't "fit in" with AAA radio, and who wanted to give it a home. They threw a rope around it, said "we'll call this Americana," and 12 years later there's a four-day festival which includes everyone from Amanda Shires to Robert friggin' Plant, more than 1100 attendees to the trade conference on the topic, not to mention a Grammy Award and a dictionary definition for the term. Not too shabby. 

But, all that happened slowly, organically, and as the result of some people (including our own Kyla Fairchild) ruminating over the idea at South by Southwest back in - what was it? '98? '99?

It was a different world then. Remember the '90s? You couldn't have possibly started anything in the '90s knowing where the ensuing decade would land us. You certainly couldn't have told anyone in the '90s that Robert Plant would become a benchmark of an Americana music movement which would be heavily driven also by Americana music scenes in Brooklyn and Seattle. You couldn't even have convinced '90s you that O Brother was going to happen and matter, and stick, and still be sticking ten years after it released. I'm stating the obvious here to make a point. 

It is the nature of the passing of time that we don't have a firm grip on what's happening until it's already happened. 

Any songwriter can tell you the best songs about heartache don't always come when you're in the thick of it. Sometimes they come long before the heartache shows up. Sometimes songs are prophecies for the songwriter. Two years later, when your world has just fallen apart and you find yourself at some random venue on the road singing for strangers, suddenly you realize you wrote that song for this moment. 

Often, it happens the other way around - you write the song long after the feeling has passed, when you've learned the lesson, or are just about to. Looking back from the song, you can see what all the at-the-time apparently directionless chaos was aiming for, because it steered you exactly to where you are now. 

Revelation. 

Twelve years into the AMAs, the organization has a firm enough grip on what it's about, even the dictionary can put "Americana" into a concise collection of words. 

Occupy Wall Street should be so lucky in 12 years.

Point being...as I made my way from venue to venue - catching outstanding, surprising, memorable sets from David Wax Museum, Tim Easton (who I unexpectedly loved, and you can watch that video above), Farewell Drifters, Brian Wright, Nikki Lane, Eric Brace & Peter Cooper, and more - I was thinking about what people are capable of when they get together. 

By which I mean two things.

There's the relationships aspect - running into people who live far from where I live, who I see once a year at these things, but with whom I can always pick up an interesting conversation as if we were just talking about this stuff yesterday. Fellow bloggers and Twitter friends - Twang Nation, Country Fried Rock, @warnerblaster, @marketmonkeys, etc. Reminders that "internet people" are actually in the world doing very good work, for the right reasons, dedicating their lives to the preservation of art and the proliferation of ideas. It's good to connect with them, make some eye contact, remember those words we see on screens come from people with whom we're essentially working together, toward a collective goal. In this case, maintaining a space for Americana music. That is, after all, what the trade conference is there for - all the panels and discussions, to remind ourselves and each other of what matters, to learn how to to it better, to share what we know so everyone can benefit from our learning process.

Then there's the music itself, which people make together. Perhaps the most exceptional thing humans are capable of doing together. Many an artist and brilliant mind has likened the creation of music to religion - to proof that God exists, or what have you. People can get together in a room - whether it's Buddy Miller, Jerry Douglas, Emmylou Harris, Don Was, and Alison Krauss singing an old gospel hymn at the Ryman Auditorium or Malcom Holcombe roaring against a packed crowd in the basement of Grimey's record store - pick up a piece of wood, look each other in the eye, and create something which speaks to a certain human need so universal, the room full of shoulders-to-shoulders strangers knows, for as long as the song lasts, we all agree on this. There is something for each of us here. We may never see each other again, but we can take with us the knowledge that this melody does something to us, both as individuals and one collective unit. 

That's the very tool employed, in fact, by people when, say, they want to gather in a park and make a collective statement. When they're faced by cops - who were ordered to show up in riot gear just in case - and the people don't want any violence or friction. That's the same spirit which they employ as a tool when they start singing - as they did this weekend - "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine." 

It's powerful shit, music.

The AMA, it's clear, is fiercely driven by and dedicated to the music it seeks to preserve. For all the awards and honors and sponsorships, etc., this is an organization where the music is the most important thing - not the egos, the fashion, the money, or the sway. There's something about the AMAs which makes it so much more plausible to get together to buck the establishment - be it AAA radio or the wealthiest one percent.

It's not always about turning up a finger, though. Sometimes it's about piling into a park on a sunny day with a bunch of strangers and doing the thing you all have in common. In NYC this weekend, that was Zucotti and Washington Square Park, singing Woody Guthrie tunes with Tom Morello, etc. In Nashville, it was lying on a blanket with a cupcake, listening to Ben Sollee cover Paul Simon.

Whatever the context, whatever the end result, it's all reaching for love, goodness, music.

Views: 1101

Comment by Easy Ed on October 17, 2011 at 2:17pm
Tim Easton's repeated performances at Pappy and Harriet's out in Joshua Tree and his trips to Alaska this year seem to have honed what was already an amazing instrument in voice and song. I was so glad you kicked off this piece with him sitting on top of it. Might say he is occupying your blog. Poor pun-deries aside, I find it refreshing to read your thoughts about an organization such as the AMA. Being one who seems to always look at such industry-like groups with a jaundiced eye, your take on them and the festivities and music these past few days gives me some good feelings. I must admit that as I watched all the tweeting going on from Nashville I felt a little left behind, because it sure seemed like one helluva party. And being the political animal that you are, I think it would be hard not to look at the music without peering through the occupy lens. Well done as always KR.
Comment by Terry Roland on October 17, 2011 at 7:46pm

Thanks for that great editorial, Kim! I'm reading the Carter Family story outloud to my 90 year-old mother. A year and a half ago I was forced into early retirement because of many of the 'tea-party' ideologies that eventually has brought us, at last, to the Occupy movement...But, it's all allowed me the time to be in Nashville and to focus on this music. As I read The Carter Family story outloud, it became clear that key to their success was they weren't pretending to be something they were not...They connected with everyday people because they were everyday people.  This is what the AMA movement is about and also what Occupy is about as well. Arlo Guthrie once said protest can happen not always because of what is being said directly as much as what's being done and who's doing it. Coming together for the love of music is it.....So is demonstrating because people really do need to be heard.....It's all timeless stuff....and it spoils things for the 'tea party' and others who would love us to stay quiet.....Let's let the light shine, I say!! 

Thank you Kim...that was great! 

Comment by TwangNation.com on October 18, 2011 at 6:09am
Good stuff. If only global economics was a simple as the boundaries defining  Americana. great hanging with you.
Comment by Myron Feeblecorn on October 18, 2011 at 7:16am

You mean the same OWS group that was the brainchild of Adbusters, a Canadian socialist anti-semitic group who's stated goal is ending capitalism and replacing with socialism because socialism has such a loooong track record of success?

Is this the same OWS that has been heartily endorsed by the Nazi Party of America, The Communist Party of America, and the governments of China and Iran?  The same OWS that has shown blatent racism and anti-semitism in their posters and recorded words? The one with leaders who repeatedly make veiled (and not-so veiled) calls for violence? Just want to make sure we're talking about the same folks, cause I personally wouldn't feel too much love or goodness about THAT OWS.  Oh, and is this the same OWS that is calling for Obama's re-election even though he has taken more $$$ from Wall Street THAN ANY OTHER POLITICIAN IN US HISTORY (by far)?

 

The difference between OWS and the Tea Party is that one group whines and moans and does nothing but eat free food, take up space, whine for more handouts (cause they have a liberal arts degree, dammit!) shit on cop cars and trash the environment that they occupy- and can't even tell you why they're there. The Tea Party at least made their point, cleaned up their mess and then went back to the homes and families they support by being productive and patriotic members of our society.  Ya'll need to take a long, deep look at what is happening out there, who's behind it, and why they're doing it. It may make you uncomfortable, and may mean you have to question certain long-held and rarely thought about ideals. But at least you can still do that in this country (for now).

 

(admin: all statements above are verifiable, so please don't delete my post before checking)

Comment by Kim Ruehl on October 18, 2011 at 7:35am

Myron - there's been very, very little violence from the OWS folks. Arrests have reportedly been willing and peaceful arrests, and many cops have expressed their support and sympathy for the movement. OWS movements around the country have been taking measures to work within the law for their demonstrations, and have worked with law enforcement and local officials to ensure it remains a peaceful and respectful campaign. And that's what it's been - not sure where you get your news.

 

It's a peaceful non-partisan movement which has included members of the Tea Party and other affiliations, and has as many people who are upset with Obama (if not moreso) than those who support him. Curious where you heard it's being supported by the Nazi party, etc., and who's "shit on cop cars and trashed the environment they occupy." There have actually been a few group work parties among OWS folks to keep the park(s) clean - they are living there, after all. It's also not a solely college student movement. Dr. Cornell West was arrested this week for joining the demonstration (peacefully arrested, I might add), and thousands of nurses, pilots, teachers, and other professionals and their unions have joined in and expressed their solidarity. 

 

Also, the movement as a rule has no leaders or spokespeople. That's part of the point. It's a people's movement, a visibility campaign. 

 

As the "admin," I'm not gong to delete your comment just because I'm not sure you have your facts straight. We're here for the sake of discourse. Comments are only deleted when they become personal attacks or employ racist, homophobic, or otherwise defamatory language and sentiments.

Comment by Sloane Spencer on October 18, 2011 at 8:55am
Of all the "industry" events I attend for my various media jobs (yes, I, too, have a Day Job), the Americana Festival is the one that can bring me to tears with music pleasure.  At #AmericanaFest, the artists, media, and "machine" are all on the same page--love of real music.  If a passionate upstart like Country Fried Rock can be mentioned in the same sentence with Twang Nation, WarnerBlaster, and MarketMonkeys (on No Depression, no less!), then it lends hope to us all that real music will be heard.  Thank you--I'm all verklempt.
Comment by Etta Lea Pritchard on October 18, 2011 at 8:59am
Wow, awesome post Kim. Thanks for making these connections and for conveying something amazing that really is difficult to put into words.
Comment by Thomas H. Thomas on October 18, 2011 at 9:08am

Getting back to the music, there can be no doubt that the streets, bars, and other assorted venues were absolutely packed with intriguing and wonderful music.  One of my very favorite groups I saw was a band called The Killyas.  They are a new(ish) group  that is absolutely smokin'.  I understand that they are attracting some interest from a couple different producers and were jumped into the studio this week to record some of their songs.  Can't wait for more of that.  

My ears are still abuzz from all the great tunes that I heard during AMA week.

Comment by Rudyjeep on October 18, 2011 at 1:38pm
Tim Easton is a real gem.  He's a great songwriter and singer with a smile like a young Rick Danko.  Seeing him for the first time (when he toured with Wilco minus Tweedy) was one of the most memorable live experiences I've ever had.   Whenever he's a convenient drive from me, I make sure to catch him.
Comment by Smitty Smith on October 23, 2011 at 4:16pm

Kim - I had a fantastic time at the AMAs, and echo your thoughts about Love, Goodness, and Music.  It would be nice to meet you at next year's events - I often enjoy your posts here.  To sum up my impression of the event, I'll cut and paste my Facebook status from the day after:

What a great long weekend I spent in Nashville at the Americana Music Association Conference and Festival!! I don't think Facebook will allow me the room to list all the people I got to spend time with. Let's just say I'm happy, honored, and humbled to be part of a music community full of such talented, friendly, loving and supportive artists. Even the industry people I've gotten to know are great (but the ones I know don't wear suits....). My brother Nathan Bell, my landlords Jeff & Vida, my hangin' out buddies Jill Jack, Tom Mason, Phil Lee, Doug Williams and Telisha Williams, and everyone else - I love you all!!

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.